This is a recap of the 2016 Take the Rock Swim. For a more detailed article, check out my review of the 2014 event.
On Sunday, September 25th, I had the honor of coordinating 59 swimmers in an Alcatraz swim. This wasn’t just any Alcatraz swim, but the 4th annual “Take the Rock” Veterans Swim Challenge. Participants were military veterans from Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan, and peace time. Many brought family members to train with them each Saturday to prepare for the 1.4-mile open water swim. We had perfect weather, with air temperatures in the 70’s and sunny and the water in the 60’s. And unlike years past, every single swimmer who jumped in was able to finish their swim and greeted by a cheering crowd at Aquatic Park in San Francisco.
How it started
Take the Rock started in 2013 when a local Vietnam Veteran, Earle Conklin, challenged me and coworker, Maurice Delmer, to help him facilitate an Alcatraz swim for veterans. He envisioned the swim as a means to empower returning service members, many who struggle readjusting to civilian life and are looking for a way to return to “normal” everyday civilian life after deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan.
When I balked at the idea, Earle told me he understood, saying, “Yeah I’ve taken 12-year-old boy scouts on this swim, but if it’s too much for you I understand.” The Marine in me couldn’t let that go and I took the bait.
After my first swim, I was hooked. The feeling of peace in the water, the all-encompassing body high after getting out of the bay, along with the empowerment that helped me gain proficiency and even mastery in other areas of my life convinced me this swim was worth growing. More vets needed a taste of this.
Take the Rock 4.0
The first year Take the Rock included twenty vets and family members. It grew in the following years to thirty-two, then forty, and now fifty-nine this year! Advertising has been largely word of mouth, with only a few fliers and Facebook posts enticing people. I expect next year to be closer to eighty.
We have been fortunate to provide this swim at no cost to participants because of funding from the Danville-based Vietnam Vets of Diablo Valley. In addition, our coaching is provided by the Nadadores Locos and South End Rowing Club members who love teaching people to swim and improve their technique. Others volunteer as safety kayakers or ground crew, whose tasks include helping paralyzed or amputee swimmers back into their chairs or prosthetics.
VNVDV President Bill Green with founder Earle Conklin and girlfriend Rhona.
Beyond the notch in the belt for participants to say they swam from Alcatraz, this event is about opportunity and empowerment. As a Marine Corps veteran who has served 2 tours in Iraq and was diagnosed with PTSD upon coming home, I don’t want pity from people. I just want a fair opportunity to succeed. Many vets struggle with the transition of getting out of the military and back from war because the change of pace, societal norms, and sense of teamwork is dramatically different. The Take the Rock swim helps veterans to apply their military mindset and focus their energy on both swimming and encouraging others. It’s a team effort, which is why we call it a challenge and not a race.
Three notable finishers this year were Michelle Davis, Jeff Jewell, and Dave Smith. Michelle has worked hard over the last couple years to overcome injuries and confidence in the water. This year, she finished the swim for her first time and was greeted by her very enthusiastic friends.
High five enroute.
Jeff Jewell is the director of the Concord Vet Center. He has undergone major lifestyle changes in the last two years and lost over 70 pounds. This year he decided to literally jump in with both feet and train for the swim through his local US Masters Swim team in Solano County and with the Nadadores Locos during our Saturday practices. It had been a few years since he had regular exercise in his life, so this was a challenge, but one he did not back down from. Jeff dedicated the swim to the Gold Star families of California, which are the families of active duty military who have died while in service.
This way to the beach party, sir.
Our oldest swimmer, Dave Smith, is a Vietnam Veteran and had volunteered in past years for the Take the Rock support crew. He decided that swimming from Alcatraz would be a great 70th birthday present to himself. Dave was in great shape, but did not have any experience swimming in the pool or open water. He proved that with determination and some coaching on technique, age is just a number when it comes to swimming Alcatraz.
Dave Smith, not even tired.
I have no background in swimming growing up. I learned how to “not drown” in the Marine Corps and became adept at the combat side stroke, but that was it. After swimming Take the Rock I signed up for the Ironman 70.3 Vineman in Sonoma County and began training with the Walnut Creek Masters and improving my technique tenfold thanks to coaches Kerry, Mike, Steve, and Deb. I’ve found a new home with everyone at the pool during the 6:45 practices and discovered that I actually love swimming. This also provided an opportunity for me to start this blog about my own transition out of the military and how I have used endurance sports to deal with feelings of anxiety and depression. I’m currently training for the full Ironman Vineman 2017.
Next year will be our fifth anniversary of Take the Rock. Do you know any vets who want to join us? Would you like to volunteer and be part of the fun? Find out more at www.taketherock.com.